Using Google Earth to Quantify Damage from Looting

Using Google Earth to quantify the looting of archaeological sites

(research by Daniel Contreras)


In the past, it has been difficult to obtain reliable quantitative, longitudinal information “on-the-ground” about the extent and intensity of archaeological site looting. Most relevant data has been produced through archaeological field surveys, though these remain few in number are too expensive to repeat at periodic intervals. High-resolution aerial and/or satellite imagery offers a means of identifying and assessing site damage from a distance (see for example Politis 2002, Stone 2008a, 2008b; Hritz 2008), though to date the cost of obtaining suitable images has been largely prohibitive. Now, however, the satellite imagery made available on Google Earth is a relatively inexpensive resource that can be used for identifying and quantifying site looting through time. For example, here is an image of the sites of Bāb adh-Dhrā، and Khirbat Qazone in Jordan, with looted areas clearly identifiable from pitting.



The Cultural Heritage Resource has developed a simple method for producing images of known date (such as the one shown above) that allow the looted area of an archaeological site to be measured using standard GIS software. As images are up-dated on Google Earth, the size of looted areas can be re-measured, thus producing longitudinal estimates of the incidence of looting.   


This research was recently featured in one of Stanford University's publications, in an article titled, "Buying, Selling, Owning the Past," and Contreras and Brodie have recently published a summary titled "Shining Light on Looting: Using Google Earth to Quantify Damage and Raise Public Awareness," in The SAA Archaeological Record.  Contreras has also published on related research on looting in Peru in Antiquity, in an article titled "Huaqueros and remote sensing imagery: assessing looting damage in the Virú Valley, Peru"